Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select
FindLaw Legal Dictionary

The FindLaw Legal Dictionary -- free access to over 8260 definitions of legal terms. Search for a definition or browse our legal glossaries.



libel n

[Anglo-French, from Latin libellus, diminutive of liber book]
1 : complaint used esp. in admiralty and divorce cases
2 a : a defamatory statement or representation esp. in the form of written or printed words
: a false published statement that injures an individual's reputation (as in business) or otherwise exposes him or her to public contempt
b : the publication of such a libel
c : the crime or tort of publishing a libel see also single publication rule New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in the Important Cases section compare defamation, slander NOTE: Although libel is defined under state case law or statute, the U.S. Supreme Court has enumerated some First Amendment protections that apply to matters of public concern. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court held that in order to recover damages a public person (as a celebrity or politician) who alleges libel (as by a newspaper) has to prove that “the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” in order to recover damages. The Court has also held that the states cannot allow a private person to recover damages for libel against a media defendant without a showing of fault (as negligence) on the defendant's part. These protections do not apply to matters that are not of public concern (as an individual's credit report) and that are not published by a member of the mass media. A libel plaintiff must generally establish that the alleged libel refers to him or her specifically, that it was published to others, and that some injury (as to reputation) occurred that gives him or her a right to recover damages (as actual, general, presumed, or special damages). The defendant may plead and establish the truth of the statements as a defense. Criminal libel may have additional elements, as in tending to provoke a breach of peace or in blackening the memory of someone who is dead, and may not have to be published to someone other than the person libeled.
vt -beled also: -belled
-bel·ing also: -bel·ling
1 : to make or publish a libel against
: to hurt the reputation of by libel [respondent's complaint alleged that he had been libeled by statements in a full-page advertisement "New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)"]
2 : to proceed against in law by filing a libel (as against a ship or goods) [several French ships were libeled in Boston "J. K. Owens"]

Source: Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law ©1996. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Published under license with Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options